“I love people.”
Johnny Guffey is adamant about that point, and anyone who has had the pleasure of dining in his section at Jeffrey’s knows that he conveys that feeling in ways big and small. We had a conversation over hot tea in the dining room of his home in Clarksville. While he jokingly called the art-and-antiques– filled house a “Sanford and Son junk store,” in reference to the hit 1970s NBC sitcom about a junk dealer, others would call it delightfully eccentric. Guffey talked about the stories he’s heard, the comfort he’s provided, and all the ways that he has made diners feel like one in a million for the past 31 years.
Socializing with people is his favorite part of the job he’s held since the days when Clarksville was a very different, largely African-American neighborhood with the occasional unpaved street. You truly never know who will be eating in his section on a given night. One night Lady Bird Johnson and Liz Carpenter were dining at one table, six gay men visiting from Los Angeles at the next table, a group of old Austin hippies at the third table, and an older straight couple from Northwest Hills who had never been to Jeffrey’s at the fourth table. The unpredictability of the evening is what adds to the overall festive environment in Guffey’s section.
Even though Guffey has waited on everyone from Geena Davis and John F. Kennedy Jr. (“Oh, God, was he gorgeous!”) to Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and his friend Molly Ivins, he emphasized that it’s the regular folks who make his day and provide him with the most satisfaction. At numerous points, Guffey’s asides, stories and digressions had this reporter laughing so hard it hurt.
“It’s having a party every night, but you don’t have to cook and you never wash dishes,” Guffey said. Whether it’s a gay couple celebrating an anniversary and feeling comfortable enough to sit and hold hands, or an older British couple who recalled listening to King George as children, Guffey believes people are ultimately looking for the same thing: affirmation. “Everyone wants validation or to be heard,” he said. “Whether you’re serving a bowl of chili or a $45 steak, it’s the same.”
“Johnny is truly one of Austin’s living treasures,” said Gary Cooper, a longtime resident and regular guest at the restau- rant. “What I most respect about Johnny is that he is such a fine example of taking pride in work, commanding respect for the honorable profession of a service role. Every meal is an event filled with good humor and great stories as well as fine dining, as Johnny works his magic around the room.”
In an old photo, a 10-year-old Guffey in grey pants and a blue plaid short-sleeve shirt is standing, looking comfortable with his hand on his hip, in front of a 1950s pink-and-white Chevy on a sunny, picture-perfect day. “I had a very loving home,” he said, adding that there was never any contention about his sexuality, despite his father’s military pedigree. Out of five children in the family, four boys and one girl, three of the boys were gay.
Sitting in front of a large freestanding cupboard filled with multicolored Fiesta ware in every shape and size—my favorite was probably the cerulean blue Andy Warhol “Fiesta Pig”— and underneath a large, real stuffed monkey holding a pair of striped Pucci heels aloft and a Clementine Hunter portrait (Oprah collects her work), Guffey took a quick trip down memory lane. Any visitor to his home will be amazed by the weirdly lifelike Victorian taxidermy, gorgeous landscape paintings, and painstakingly built matchstick art, all of which pull the eyes in a multitude of directions.
A beautiful family portrait, framed and painted on silk, was discovered recently amidst his parents’ things. After searching through countless photo albums, Guffey located the picture that it was painted from—a family photo that his father carried with him in his wallet while serving in the Korean War, with a Japanese inscription on the back. “Back then, there were shops that would do this,” he said. His father, John William Guffey, who served in World War II and Korea, passed away in 1982 after a bout with heart disease; his mother, Martha, died five years ago of heart failure.
After studying sociology at what was then called Southwest Texas State University and spending some time in New York City, Guffey came to Austin. For someone who grew up in Killeen, coming to Austin was like moving to Oz. A stint in the collections library at UT was followed by a six-month trip to Europe and later, after returning to Austin, a job as a server at the Texas Chili Parlor. A friend had started working at Jeffrey’s and suggested that Guffey come along.
“I’ve met so many people. I’m on my third, almost fourth, generation of customers,” he said. “I can’t go anywhere without running into people I’ve waited on.”
On a recent visit, seated at the corner table in the back of Guffey’s section, my dinner date and I felt like royalty. Both first-time diners at the restaurant, we asked to be taken on a culinary journey. Our limits? None. After offering up his thoughts about the cocktail list, Guffey sent out two of the restaurant’s signature appetizers: crispy fried oysters served on yucca chips with a delectable pineapple pico de gallo and seared foie gras with melt-in-your-mouth banana bread. In between his stories of famous patrons, witty banter and easygoing manner, we enjoyed some awesome entrees—including my braised lamb papardelle with kale.
By the end of the night, my friend— who also works in the hospitality industry—was completely in awe of not only the food but the overall ambience and experience that is unique to Guffey’s section.
Guffey has overcome his own share of hardship with a remarkable calm and ability to see humor in many circumstances. Back in 2002, after he experienced pain in his chest, his doctor recommended bypass surgery. This was particularly tough for Guffey, who’d watched his father struggle with heart disease. “I tell people, listen to your body,” he said.
His surgeon, who is also one of his customers, likes to share a story about Guffey’s comment right before he went under for the quintuple bypass operation. “When they were wheeling me in, the last thing I said before they put me out was apparently, ‘has anybody checked to make sure the bone saw has been sharpened?’ Then click, out like a light,” said Guffey. “I didn’t want no dull saw cutting my chest open!”
Steven, one of his brothers, was robbed and fatally shot in 1982 in Houston after coming out of a gay bookstore. Guffey’s strong feelings about the validity of hate crimes and the need to protect the LGBT community stems from personal experience. “Some of these politicians talking about how there’s no such thing as a hate crime—I don’t care if it’s gay or black or Jewish—there are hate crimes.”
Indeed, recent statistics suggest that the number of hate crimes in Central Texas has gone up; whether that’s because of more incidents or more comfort in reporting them, is anyone’s guess.
Although Guffey was quick to say he’s not a “huge donor” to the city’s myriad nonprofits, he has been a consistent supporter and patron of many worth- while causes, according to other local philanthropists. That support has included ZACH Scott Theatre and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. In the future, he’d like to get more involved with Animal Trustees of Austin because of his love of pets. His art love extends to the Long Center, the Paramount, and Austin Lyric Opera.
“I don’t think of myself as a living legend, but then so many people want me to blog or tweet or whatever you kids do—I could run into someone at Costco and it becomes a short story,” said Guffey. “Oh, there are so many stories.”
Two of Guffey’s longtime customers and dear friends, Lisa and Jim Jasper, put it this way, “Johnny was a ‘social network’ before technology created the modern connotation of the term,” said Lisa Jasper, who has known Guffey throughout his career. “For over 30 years, he has created intimate and meaningful relationships with thousands of Austinites. He has celebrated three generations of family births. He has mourned and consoled the loss of husbands, partners and wives. But most of all, for three decades Johnny has touched so many peoples’ lives.”
It’s certainly true that no matter where he ventures around town, Guffey will often cross paths with someone whose life he has touched in a positive way by the sheer force of his personality.
Jeffrey’s is set to close for a few months beginning this spring for a makeover. In the interim, Guffey might take a trip. Can he see himself retiring? Guffey said that he might be a junk dealer or get a spot at Uncommon Objects. Although he has considered leaving some items to a worthy nonprofit, he sees his art and antique collection as the foundation for his retirement years. With out missing a beat, he said, “I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a U-Haul hooked up to a hearse.”
He added, “I try to dwell on how lucky I am. Someone was bitching to me the other day about something so menial. I said, ‘you know what, go over to St. David’s Hospital and sit in the cancer ward for an hour. Sit there for a bit and just look around you. I’ve got a house full of fabulous crap! What do I have to complain about? There but for the grace of God…I could be…Sarah Palin.”